SxS: In the mi(d)st


From the opening of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, aboard the Nellie:

We felt meditative, and fit for nothing but placid staring. The day was ending in a serenity of still and exquisite brilliance. The water shone pacifically; the sky, without a speck, was a benign immensity of unstained light; the very mist on the Essex marsh was like a gauzy and radiant fabric, hung from the wooded rises inland, and draping the low shores in diaphanous folds.

Three sentences—ten words, twelve words, forty-four words. I appreciate the mimetic effects here, especially in specifically visual movements in the third sentence; the sequence to the seeing helps credibly place us there in the boat on the Thames as the day closes.

The first two sentences are simple and short, less visual than factual, providing basic information. And then Conrad takes us into the “staring,” the seeing, with a sentence more than three times as long as those that precede it, and compromised of three discrete directions of the gaze that implicitly have us seeing how the five aboard look out from the boat.

First, and briefest, the water (4 words). We/they see at once its expansive shine. Nothing in particular can keep the gaze, and so we/they look up to the sky, which is wider, and this act of looking into the clear “immensity” lasts a bit longer (12 words). This feels true: after staring out at the water to tip the head back and take in the vaster sky. But the sky — “without a speck” — is featureless. So the gaze moves to land, and the sentence then stretches and stretches more (adding 28 words) with, finally, some material (so to speak) for the eye stay with — not stare at but look at now, and look at with enough consideration to prompt a specific simile that aids in achieving a vivid picture.

It was Conrad who famously defined his job in writing as, “above all, to make you see.” Notice how he works, patiently, to make us see that mist on the marsh, backed by (and made more visible by) the “wooded rises inland.” That neither the sea nor the sky had offered the eye anything as substantive contributes to the palpable quality of the mist.

Those wooded rises remind me of a passage by Elaine Scarry (again fromDreaming by the Book), who devotes a lot of attention to how effortlessly the mind can visualize “filmy” objects, like that “gauzy and radiant fabric,” those “diaphanous folds.” Here Scarry is addressing how writers achieve “solidity” in the reader’s imagination:

The passing of a filmy surface over another (by comparison, dense) surface is not the only way of solidifying walls. But it is a key way; it recurs with writers universally saluted for their vividness, and it occurs precisely at moments where the newborn fictional worlds are most fragile and at risk because they are just in the midst of coming into being.